The Question of Theater: Synopsis

The completed draft of the book has gone to some friends for comments. I’ve revised the title slightly to The Question of Theater: Online Role-playing, Postdramatic Theater, and Reflexivity. Here is a synopsis.


I discuss my own experience in Second Life and how I became interested in online role-playing, even though I am not a role-player myself. The question of whether it is a form of theater raises the issue of how to define theater. There has been little study of online role-playing from a performance standpoint. Importantly, I will not be discussing online role-playing as games, even though much of it occurs in a game context. I will also examine Lehmann’s theory of postdramatic theater, because it raises other questions about the definition of the theater. My approach will be to analyze theater’s social ontology, that is, its fundamental social components and structure, based on critical realist social theory.

Chapter 1: Role-playing

The chapter discusses the history of role-playing, its main genres, the basic techniques, larp (live action role-playing) theory on relationship between larp and theater, and the similarities and differences between online role-playing and theater.

Chapter 2: Virtual Worlds

Following a line of thinking initiated by Deleuze (with older forerunners), virtuality is conceptualized as potential, not tied to any technology (novels can create virtual worlds, for instance). Building on psychological and sociological research on digital virtuality, I define three main dimensions of the experience of virtual environments: immersion, engagement, and presence. Virtual worlds are distinct from virtual environments by being peopled, which carries a number of ramifications (mostly discussed in chapter 4). The chapter concludes with a return to the concept of virtuality, setting it in relation to positivism, realism, and fiction.

Chapter 3: Problems of Presence, Embodiment, and Spatiality

I begin with an overview of theories of presence in theater, largely summarizing Cormac Power, and critique his own theory. Again plumbing research on digital virtual worlds, I identify three types of presence: self-presence, spatial presence, and social presence. These are secured by embodiment and emplacement in both the physical and digital realms. These issues are united in Brian Mennecke’s concept of embodied social presence, which plays a role in theater.

Chapter 4: The Two Homologies

The chapter develops a social ontology of theater, based on the ontology of society in general, consisting of structures, agents, and discourses; and the ontology of agents, composed of embodiment, causal efficacy, and intentionality. Organized activities and organizations, including theater, have a similar trifold ontology, making them homologous to both social ontology and agential ontology. But theater has a second ontological structure consisting of the performance event, the performed event, and the performance score—a structure that is also homologous with social ontology. The performance event itself is structured by two dualities: the activities of performing and attending, which can be distributed anywhere from totally separate groups to everyone doing both; and the intrinsic and extrinsic aspects, which are the states of being mentally in-character and in-world, versus being out-of-character and out-of-world, which are always concurrent. The state of being in-character and in-world is one of cognitive and affective transportation into a fictional virtual world, a type of possible world. Theater’s social ontology makes it a model of social agency. But agents are reflexive. That raises a question that reverses the argument: if there were such a thing as reflexivity conducted by a collectivity using all three aspects of agential ontology, what would it look like?

Chapter 5: The Question of Reflexivity

Individual reflexivity, in which an agent determines the actions she takes in the world, is motivated by questions (e.g., “how should I do X?”). Collective reflexivity, when conducted verbally, proceeds the same way as individual reflexivity, but people in groups usually do more than talk and listen: they notice each other’s body language. In embodied collective reflexivity, the participants’ bodily actions are prominent bearers of meaning. Theater, however, doesn’t quite fit the model of embodied collective reflexivity. But there is a special type of reflexivity: metareflexivity, in which we ask about ourselves. Metareflexivity is recursive. Verbal collective metareflexivity is recursive the same way as individual metareflexivity—but embodied collective metareflexivity is another matter, because agent’s ontology of embodiment, causal efficacy and intentionality are in an emergent and stratified relationship. To understand that sort of recursion, I turn to Peirce, whose system of trichotomous analysis treats exactly this type of relationship. Using it to determine the structure of embodied collective metareflexivity leads to an ontology that matches theatrical performance, including its organizational substructure and audience responses. But it doesn’t fully account for the importance of fiction. The explanation lies in the basic operation of metareflexivity: asking a question. In this case asking a question must be done at least in part through the body, which requires a series of virtualizations. These virtualizations explain the distinction between in intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of the performance event and the actor’s dual state.

Chapter 6: Edgy Performances

Here I focus on two types of performance that challenge or press the limits of my definition of theater: postdramatic theater and extreme larp. The term “postdramatic theater” was coined by Hans-Thies Lehmann to encompass neo-avant-garde theatrical forms that had arisen since the 1960s or so. My focus in this chapter is on his theory. Postdramatic theater, he contends, displaces the text, alters the performer/audience relationship, and has little or no fiction. In reality, postdramatic theater typically uses a completely conventional separation between actors and audiences in which performers retain control. Lehmann creates two incompatible models of postdramatic theater: one in which it has some fictional content, and another where it has none. In practice most postdramatic theater consists of plays, with dramatic fiction. When there is no fiction whatsoever, postdramatic theater is effectively a type of performance art. Extreme larps have sought to thin or break down the fiction/reality distinction and the equal powers players are usually given to control role-playing. The goal of thinning the fiction/reality distinction is often to create “bleed”: powerful emotional or other effects. But it can also seek to seek to make everything part of the fiction. Another type of extreme role-playing occurs in BDSM, which aims to create bleed as well. Some larp theory claims that BDSM includes larping but shouldn’t be considered larp due to its goals; I argue that goals do not establish a significant difference. Although postdramatic theater and extreme larps trouble the fiction/reality distinction in different ways and toward different ends: postdramatic theater aims for epistemological uncertainty, often for the sake of a moral shock, whereas extreme larp seeks experiences and emotional responses.

Chapter 7: A World of Questions

Questions play a prominent role in the definition of theater I present. Most theories of questions entail positing possible worlds, a concept that originated in philosophy and was adapted to serve theories of fiction. It has been extended to the concept of virtual world, but without clearly delineating the relationship between possible worlds and virtual worlds. To identify this relationship I turn to Deleuze, who distinguishes two oppositions: real vs possible, and actual vs virtual. The virtual is real. To illuminate these concepts I draw an analogy to traveling from one point to another, with all the choices and impediments that may entail, and I describe the terrain which all of these traverse as a problem field, the structure of which is its virtuality. That field is also peopled—a virtual world—and therefore also structured and impelled by intentionalities. In theater, problem fields are encountered in the transformation from page to stage, with all the options and decisions entailed in casting, blocking, design, and so on. Thus theater is not mimesis, but world creation. The view that the virtual is real bears on the problem of fictional truth and fictional reality. In theater the actual and the fictional worlds are open totalities that remain mutually porous.

Chapter 8: Modes of Performing Agency

Not all agency is conducted in the same way, and this has consequences for performance. I examine four dimensions of such diversity. The first of these dimensions returns us to social theory to examine two types or senses of collectivity: the categorial We of groups connected to social structures, demographics or affinities, and the interpersonal We of relationships between known individuals. This distinction separates theater from activities such as children’s fantasy role-playing, BDSM, and psychodrama. The chapter’s second topic concerns the variants and siblings of theater. I evaluate a range of performance genres, from opera to entertainment wrestling to recorded forms like film and TV. The definition of theater allows us to specify in terms of social ontology why a genre is or isn’t theater, and introduce a concept that distinguishes film and TV. The third subject considers the research demonstrating that people do not process their reflexivity in the same way, visible especially in their decision-making process and priorities. The differences are principally manifested in the performed event. The final section turns to the historically and culturally variable concepts of the self, manifested in both the performance event and the performed event.

Chapter 9: Players of Neoliberalism

Online role-playing and postdramatic theater were both born under advanced capitalism, and both turn out to be suffused by the neoliberal concept of agency: highly individualized, competitive, self-reliant, and hedonistic. I show that Lehmann’s concept of postdramatic theater is deeply shaped by neoliberal ideology, as is his concept of a “politics of perception.” However, substantial political change can only occur through collective action, which Lehmann’s neoliberal spectator cannot sustain. Moreover, only with fiction can theater imagine the world being different, and because Lehmann’s theory of postdramatic theory rejects referentiality, he cannot consider the currently urgent and real politics of perception: the demand for visibility and equality on stage. I then turn to online role-playing, which started in small-scale forms but was then incorporated into corporately-produced virtual worlds. There have been claims that the guilds in games like World of Warcraft are neoliberal managerial training forms; I find these arguments dubious on factual and logical grounds. A better argument concerns the “theme park” character of games like World of Warcraft that encourage the exercise of a neoliberal form of agency. Moreover, in these games the game-play itself generally pursues neoliberal ends. Yet, contradictory aspects also emerge—in particular, the value many players place on sociality and collective activity. Both in the games and in online social worlds like Second Life, there is an emergent egalitarianism and trace of utopianism, which suggest a largely but not entirely submerged liberatory potential.


Theater, which only occurs as a social event, needs to be defined primarily based on its social nature.  It has a specific social structure that prioritizes fiction, embodiment and presence. Analyzing theater in terms of social ontology provides a way to develop a coherent definition of theater that avoids the ethnocentrism and idealism of aesthetic definitions, and the baggy generality of anthropological definitions. Social ontology also provides a way to assess the extent that new genres of performance fit within the category of theatre. Online role-playing may be the first modern theater genre with grassroots rather than elite and individualist roots.

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